On the "Who Would Have Thunk It?" scale, the new Foreign Secretary William Hague's tour of the major European capitals this week must mark pretty high. It was only a few months ago that he, and his boss, were talking of Europe as if it were some alien threat, only to be approached with extreme caution.
Now we have David Cameron flying off to Paris and Berlin within days of taking office, and William Hague declaring that our European partners would find the new government "eager to be involved". We'd be urging the EU to act more decisively in international affairs, he argued just before his trip to Paris, Rome, Berlin and Warsaw.
One can only applaud the change in tone. And there are good reasons why the Tories should seek to don European colours at this time. The Union is in flux. There is a crying need for British participation in the decisions that have to be made. And for William Hague, there is that ever-seductive draw of the larger stage. As Foreign Secretary of the UK, Hague has but a moderate voice. As a voice of Europe, he can speak with self-importance on a whole range of issues, from Iranian sanctions to Gaza and the Middle East.
Up to a point, it should be added. Europe has no common foreign policy and the likelihood of it developing one has been sharply reduced by Gordon Brown's disastrous decision to promote a lightweight in Lady Ashton to the formal post instead of concentrating on getting a Briton into the crucial role of internal markets commissioner. For all the constant urging for the EU to act as a major player in international affairs, that is not the problem facing it and its members at this moment. The world essentially looks to Europe as a source of economic growth. That is most at risk now and where policy development in Europe poses the most demanding questions to a new British government led by eurosceptic Conservatives.
On the one hand the political irresolution of Europe's leaders, and in particular the tensions now between Paris and Berlin, opens up opportunities for London that weren't there before our general election. They also provide welcome cover for the new UK government to pursue a policy of expenditure cuts that many economists oppose.
On the other hand, whether you agree with Paris or Berlin on the next steps, the logic of events is towards greater integration of economic policy and political oversight. It is the only way that Europe can manage the crisis today and to maintain growth tomorrow, just as the only effective route to financial regulation, military cutbacks and environmental controls is through the EU.
In favour of the British government is that the economic crisis has forced the Commission to take a back seat. If the great bugbear of the Tories is a creeping power grab by Brussels, then this is not what is happening now. The crisis is one of political leadership and can only be met when that is sorted out in Europe.
On the other hand it is difficult to see a solution without a loss of sovereignty. The argument between Britain and the EU over whether new oversight rules should apply to the whole of the EU or just the eurozone countries (as Britain wants) is a sign of the contrary pulls, as is the Sarkozy-Merkel letter yesterday urging an end to the "naked short-selling" practised in London.
The conflicts of interest are not insuperable. Although Cameron himself seems to find Nicolas Sarkozy a more amenable companion than Angela Merkel, there is much in the German view of national rights and limits to centralisation which fit his preferences. It is perfectly feasible for a Tory-led government, with Liberal Democrat support, to forge a pluralist, non-federalist future for Europe – a multi-speed one if you like – that would suit its European views. It's not necessarily the right approach but a workable one.
But it will require a British government that looks and acts as if it cares about Europe, wants it to succeed and is prepared to get in there and work to make it so. Hague is right. We should be involved. But that means a lot more than prancing up and down in support of sanctions on Iran.
Relieve Bhopal of its association with disaster
A great deal of fury has been expended at the light sentences passed on the seven Indian defendants in the Bhopal case. And rightly so. Unbelievably, this is the first time anyone has been held accountable for the loss of around 8,000 lives in the world's worst industrial accident 25 years ago. The real outrage is that it is only the local Indian employees of Union Carbide, whose international managers proudly declare that theirs is a separate case settled directly and out of court between the Indian government and the company on payment of compensation.
But it is the Indian context that causes one some concern about the tenor of this campaign of "justice" in the Bhopal case. For the survivors and families it is all too understandable. But the passionate desire for revenge, for heads to roll and for exemplary damages to be paid – in BP's current case as in Union Carbide's – excessively personalises disasters that reflect systemic failures by companies in which all should feel a share.
The task of reconstruction and renaissance can also suffer. A quarter of a century later and Bhopal is still hamstrung by its notoriety for this one incident. It shouldn't be. The capital of one of India's poorer states, Madhya Pradesh, it has made huge efforts to improve conditions in the town. The lake has been cleaned up. Its attractions as a centre to visit Sanchi, one of the finest Buddhist sites in all Asia, and Udayapur, one of the finest medieval temples in all India, are considerable. Although the city retains many of the problems of slums and the gap between rich and poor which bedevil the whole country, its situation and lack of investment are made none the easier by its reputation. The victims of the chemical cataclysm deserve justice and restitution, but the people of Bhopal need the chance to move on.
For further reading
K. Fortun: Advocacy After Bhopal: Environmentalism, Disaster, New Global Orders (2001)Reuse content